… a last look around Lerwick.

Travelling by ferry is very civilised.   For the 7p.m. sailing, foot passengers check in at any time from 5.  Just right for a last cup of coffee and a wander up and down Commercial Street – the hub of Lerwick.  The ferry terminal is a short stroll from the centre of town, and you can leave your luggage there while you pay a last visit to the museum café.

I think it fair to say that some aspects of Lerwick are a little old-fashioned: for example, it still has several banks and two Post Offices.  There is a shoe shop.  It is undoubtedly picturesque.  The town seems to have maintained the internationalism of a port without overt multi-nationalism.

And here’s another old-fashioned thing:  it still is a working port, and the port and the town are inseparable.  Wherever you walk in the old town, you are within sight or sound of the harbour; men in deep sea waterproofs and yellow wellingtons are walking down the street; there are no high walls separating road and footpath from the docks, and there are houses right down to the water’s edge.  Mostly it is well tended, and I found the nearest thing to Yves Klein Blue I have seen outside a gallery.


Leaving my car behind in Wales was undoubtedly a wise move.  I have thoroughly explored a relatively small area on foot, and have seen far more than you ever do when rushing around in a metal box on wheels.  I have even managed some days off in Lerwick, the main town, population 7,500.  (Compared with Abergele & Pensarn, pop. 10,00, or Llandudno + Penrhyn Bay, pop. 20,000.  Thank you Wikipedia.)  Lerwick is an hour’s bus ride away, and the journey involves a lot of zig-zagging through little settlements on either side of the main road.  The place names sound very Viking – Exnaboe, Fladdabister, Aithsetter.  The view from the bus window is superb, looking precipitously down into rocky bays. The bus drivers are generally cheerful, and full of useful information.  And the buses run to time.

I have become accustomed to the mile-and-a-bit walk to the bus stop at Sumburgh, and even look forward to the way back, taking the cliff top path as a treat.  Or going the long way round via Grutness Harbour.

Lerwick has an excellent new museum and gallery, with a brilliant café – great coffee and a view over the harbour.  It also has exhibitions: currently “A Shetland Series – Banks and Skerries” drawings, photographs and three dimensional objects by Gemma Graham, who was born in Shetland and has recently returned home.  Her drawings are in black ink on paper, detailed in execution and hypnotic in effect.

What Lerwick does not have is a major shopping centre.  Or rather, it doesn’t have a mall full of chain stores.  It has a perfectly serviceable shopping centre down on the docks, with local produce for sale.  The high street has some very nice independent retailers, including a proper bookshop and a music shop, but sadly also has empty shops and some rather run down premises. But if you look, you can find almost anything you might want, all within a breath of the sea.  I have been very good, and kept out of the chocolatier’s.  But perhaps I might succumb tomorrow, when the idyll ends and I have to take the ferry back to the mainland.


When I set out for Shetland a month ago, I was expecting it to be a) windy, b) dark and c) still winter.  I was right about a), as mentioned in previous posts.  I was wrong about b) and c).  It wasn’t any darker than at home, and now the clocks have gone forward it is of course light until well after 8 o’clock.  When I arrived here, there were a few daffodils in flower, but most were at the same stage as those in my own garden:  small yellow buds pointing vertically upwards.  Now, however, there are definite signs of Spring, and daffodils appearing in every corner.  A blackbird started singing at the lighthouse two days ago, the razorbills and kittiwakes are arriving and there are skylarks singing everywhere.

As far as I can tell, gardening is not a very popular leisure activity in Shetland.  The islands are really too windswept for anything but the hardiest (and shortest) plants to survive.  The predominant terrain is treeless moorland.  New houses – and there are an awful lot of them – have a sort of “plonked down on the plot” look, surrounded by grass or even chippings.  Presumably it takes a very long time for plants to get established at 60 degrees North.  There are a few polytunnels:  not your effete flappy polythene type, but solid sheets of curved plastic, battened down solidly onto proper foundations.  The older houses are surrounded by low stone walls, behind which lurk clumps of very hardy perennials, showing a little green but no flowers yet.  The old crofters had the delightfully named plantigrubs – stone walled enclosures for growing crops which would not survive out on the hillsides.  Even today, the soil inside is rich and black and at least a foot higher than the surrounding land.

The hillsides are still brownish:  pale Naples yellow, or buff titanium, where last year’s dead grass still stands; dark reddish brown (caput mortuum?) where the heather grows.  It must be spectacular when it’s in flower, but now it is completely dormant.  However, the fields around Sumburgh farm are definitely greening up, as is the grass by the airport runways.  Here and there, the wild flowers are coming out, and when I walk along the cliff path I can see tiny shoots of green grass pushing through the dead stems.  A bumblebee buzzed out of the daffodils immediately after I pressed the shutter of the camera.



The seals were having a people-spotting Away Day today:  I was bagged four and possibly five times on my wanderings along the shore today.  At the time, I thought they were grey seals (Roman noses, you know), but checking on the internet it looks as if the one I photographed was a common seal (V-shaped nostrils).  Perhaps both species were out and about.  At one time, in Grutness Voe, two seals together were checking out the human population, but they ducked as soon as I got them in the viewfinder.

I finished my walk to Ness of Burgi fort today as it was dry and there was hardly any wind.  The sea was absolutely calm, and the waves were slopping in and out lazily; probably exhausted after their exertions of the previous month.  The geo on the Ness is completely pacific; last time I was here, I was faced with a wall of water barrelling in from Greenland.  The rocks which looked so forbidding last time are completely dry, and the path to the end of the Ness is no problem at all although I was very grateful for the reassuring chain “handrail”.

According to the information board on the Ness, the fort (or blockhouse) is unusual in being square, rather than round. This leads to speculation about its’ purpose, and raises the possibility of that good old archaeologists’ standby – Ritual.  Personally I suspect a radical Pictish architect trying to convince the rest that round was just too passé, and that square was the coming design must-have.  They weren’t convinced: “Och away with you, stick it on the end of the ness over there and have done with it”  “Alright then, I will, so.” And he did.

And we can stand on the narrow neck of land, looking at an ancient blockhouse, the ruins of World War 2 fortifications and the modern radar installations around the airport, and reflect upon the passing of time.  The Ozymandias moment.

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.




Generally speaking I have not been tempted to sit and spy upon people from my vantage point on the rock: there are, quite frankly, more interesting things to look at.  (I make an exception for the men spraying marks on the road in a tempest of wind and rain.)  Most people appear remarkably similar through the windows of the Visitor Centre:  woolly hats, fleece jackets, trousers and boots, plus or minus waterproofs.  Men and women, boys and girls.  I look very similar when I go out.  We are in uniform, as are men in business suits or women in leggings and short dresses.

Today, however, a different type of visitor in a different uniform.

At 11.10 a.m a mini convoy of three 4x4s and a sports car drives with deliberation up to the carpark.  Equally spaced on the road, headlights on.  H.M. Coastguard Search and Rescue.  Doors are opened, fourteen figures in ultra-high visibility clothing get out.  Are we in for some excitement?  A fishing boat sank on my arrival in Lerwick at the beginning of the month, although I swear it was nothing to do with me.  Am I about see a thrilling rescue before my departure? The absence of flashing blue lights suggests otherwise, and the leisureliness of foregathering on the clifftop confirms that this is a training exercise.  Kit is assembled – very slowly.  Stakes are hammered into the ground – very slowly.  Is everyone having a go?  Probably they are.

After about two hours we are ready for the first pair to abseil off the cliff.  After two and a half hours, my curiosity gets the better of me, and I wander nonchalantly down towards the carpark, sketchbook and binoculars to hand.  I am not really going to gawp, not at all.  I do not take my camera with me.  After all, I have been rather guiltily spying on them, and drawing them, from a great height.  Drawing does not count as spying – definitely not – but  I confess to a high level photograph.

As I get within earshot it is obviously a basic training exercise:  everyone is definitely having a go at everything, from pulling on the lines to going up and down the cliff on a rope.  The Man in Charge is issuing instructions:  “remember Safety”; “hand signals?” – the figures at the top of the cliff wave hands above heads  in a circular motion, and the team pulls in unison.

Oddly enough, few of the other visitors to the carpark take much notice of all this bright yellow activity on the clifftop.  A lot of them are in hired cars, so perhaps they think this is Normal For Shetland.   Or perhaps, like me, they are self-consciously Not Looking.